Monday, April 30, 2018

Tai Chi Chuan: 2 goals, 3 choices.

Tai Chi Chuan: 2 goals, 3 choices.

I am often inspired by two goals in tai chi: letting go of resistance + change (= growth) .  

Letting go of resistance: Once you get involved in push hands – the issue of resistance is as clear as a bell because stopping your partner in any way creates resistance. The one resisting loses the game and gets pushed.

Change: Change is a bit harder to perceive because it can happen so slowly. Over time, we hope the body gets more integrated, relaxed, interconnected, healthier. More functional. Changes here can be dramatic, but mostly they are very very slow. The longer you practice, the slower the incremental changes occur. “We measure our progress in decades.”

In tai chi, as in life, letting go of resistance and being open to change are critical. It is what you are studying when you study tai chi.

Where do we learn these? Both are challenging. Both create better lives.

Many peeps never learn either. War is a big industry.

So my big concern is finding ways to create a condition for change and to learn how to let go of resistances. This leads me to how can we engage in tai chi, as in “best practices”.

My own experience and observation lead me to a simple conclusion. Simple, that is, in concept, but difficult to embody.

There are three basic choices in working on a new exercise.

The first choice is resistance: “I don’t want to do this, this is too hard, this never helps, I’ve done this a million times before, I can’t do this, I’m not good at this.”

Here one creates a wall. It’s one big NO = TENSION.

The second one is resignation: “OK, if you insist, I’ll do this exercise. I’ll go along to get along, but I know this one won’t help, sure, I’ll do it to please you but it won’t really please me.”

This one bears a grudge and partly you might feel compromised.  Stoic, at best, but not enthusiastic. This is a YES, BUT NOT REALLY = COLLAPSE.

We say in tai chi “relax, don’t collapse”. But we also emphasize structure without getting stiff. We look for the middle way, exactly between stiff and collapse, and that is essentially relax. Because of this, it’s actually difficult to say what relax really is because in one sense, it is not this and it is not that. You can’t do a “not”. “Relax not collapse” is the absence of tension and it is “letting go” but maintaining a structure.

The final way - which works 100% of the time, money back guaranteed - is to FULLY PARTICIPATE. Here you are on mission to discover something new. Even when the exercise is old and you feel that you have already discovered all there is to discover, the “new” here is the deepening of the experience through repetition. That, of and in itself, can open doors. FULLY PARTICIPATE = EMBRACE.

This brings to mind The 18 Therapies. Maggie Newman, my teacher, introduced them to us after many years of tai chi. In one regard they were disappointing. Too easy, too simple, boring, no challenge, nothing dazzling to show your friends. Whoa! Resistance and resignation reared their ugly heads! We were soooo  superior to these exercises.

For me, the challenge with The 18 Therapies was in the EMBRACE. It was one HUGE exercise in embracing! Here the resistance was that they seemed too easy, too simple and worse, they would not further the “I want to be the best in tai chi” agenda. But if you can, these exercises too are pleasurable, rewarding, beneficial.

So the next time you have the urge to resist or just grudgingly go along, CHANGE your attitude, let go of RESISTANCE and begin to EMBRACE the experience.

What does it have to offer you today? What can you learn from it? How can you incorporate this into your form, your life? What will happen next if I get in the experience? How can I master this? What do I need to do?

Tai chi/Life is more challenging that way, more rewarding, and much much more fun!

To go one step further, how can you embrace ALL experience, not just the ones you like? What does it mean to embrace a negative situation, and have no resistance or resignation? There are no simple answers here…

Friday, April 27, 2018

Tai Chi Chuan - Not My Job!

Tai Chi Chuan – Not My Job!

Tai chi was recommended to me by an acting teacher who said that tai chi was the best exercise for actors because it teaches you how to give up resistance.

I began in 1982.

In looking at push hands, I can honestly say that I have NEVER said to myself or to any of my teachers, that I can’t do this, or this is too hard, or this doesn’t help me. NEVER.

My job – when given an exercise to work on - is to participate as fully as I possibly can, not judge it, or determine the value, or disregard it (as in – I already know this!)

Of the many things I have done poorly, THIS is not one of them. My worst offence was disregard in that I felt I knew what this exercise had to offer and then not give it my all. But I changed that resistance and got back to work. And learned more.

You can always learn more, even if this is the umpteenth time you have worked on an exercise. This is because every push hand interaction has many layers. Perhaps infinite.

You can learn EVEN MORE if this exercise is difficult or confusing or “not my skill set”.

Resistance is a many headed monster.

Step one: recognize it.

Step two: If you have it, let it go….

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tai Chi Chuan – Let’s Do It Wrong!

Tai Chi Chuan – Let’s Do It Wrong!

I like to experiment. And in my laboratory, often I’ll take a small aspect of tai chi, and make it the ONLY thing you do in tai chi. That way, I get a fuller experience of that small aspect.

It is often very hard to get students to join me. They want what is familiar, what feels “normal” or “correct”. They want the end of the road, not the journey, not the beginning. But aren’t journeys and beginnings exciting? Doesn’t this tap your creativity?

So resistance is what I often meet when encouraging a new look at something small and then making it BIG. Students do all they can to normalize my exaggeration. It stops the process.

Myself, I don’t get it. You have to knead the dough, pull it, pound it, and stretch it, let it rise, before you can begin to bake it. It’s OK to distort, because you can always return to normal. Some experiments work, others fail. This kind of fundamental work is particularly difficult with more advanced students, the ones who “know”.

Perfection is not the goal. I think perfection is a fortunate accident that stumbles upon a few in a precarious way. To keep your goal as perfection cuts off all exploration.

So when I want students to “do it wrong to get it right”, we are not in the land of the perfect. We are in the land of the explorer trying to find some gold.  In a way, I think that is more like tai chi than some fantasy of being a star or master. If you become a master, great! But there are no guarantees. Some students have great talent, some have little talent. Regardless, we can all be explorers in tai chi.

I have to say, the long time students who do not like to explore, who just like to do the form over and over and over again, as if THAT will create some perfection, they are often the WORST tai chi practitioners.

Your tai chi form is your best habit to date. Nothing wrong with that, but perfecting an imperfect habit will go nowhere.

In the meantime, try being open to NEW as the new goal.

You might even enjoy it!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tai Chi Chuan - May the Force Be With You

Tai Chi Chuan – May the Force Be With You

OK, really, this will not be a religious treatise.

I am more and more interested in the form as a result of forces. I am not interested in the form as a series of shapes or pathways to those shapes, or even soft shapes or soft pathway to those shapes.

Is that you?

What else is there?

Here are a few images that I like to think about, at least in terms of meaning, though not in terms of literal execution. These are metaphoric, not prescriptive.

Like, you are a marionette puppet, and you are moved by strings by someone else.

Like, you are an amoeba that morphs from one shapeless shape to another floating in an aqueous solution.

So too you are a basketball, being tossed from here to there, affected by gravity as well as your own innate buoyancy, as well as those that throw you here and there and dribble you down the court.

You are a hot air balloon that drifts along the sky.

You are the result of forces outside of yourself and inside of yourself. In one very real sense, the postures you make are not entirely from a decision to make a posture. The posture does not make the posture. Even a soft posture does not make a soft posture. Nor does the pathway make its own pathway.

All of this is the result of forces at your disposal. You don’t “do” a posture, you orchestrate forces that allow a posture to exist, to arrive, to morph into that shape, to release into the shape you want created.

Of course, these metaphors do not have mind.

So to extend the metaphors a bit, you are the puppet and the puppeteer. Can the puppet exist without the puppeteer?

You are the basketball and all the players and the court. Can you really exist without those players and the court?

You are the aqueous solution that supports and allows that amoeba to glide here and there. Can you be separate from that aqueous solution?

You are the source of heat and the pilot on the hot air balloon who steers the craft as you embrace air and space. Does a hot air balloon float without the heat? Or maneuver in space without some sort of driver at the helm?

There is mind guidance. But the tools that you have at your disposal create the actual physical act of each posture. Your tools are air, ground, gravity, the upward structure of the body, relaxation, the buoyancy of the body, momentum, the spiralic architecture of the muscles, the ball and socket architecture of the joints, the innate ability of the body to communicate within itself and place itself in space with awareness.

We don’t “do” a shape; we don’t “do” a movement. We let forces take care of that. We are never still or fixed or truly static. We are fluid, releasing, morphing, becoming one piece, becoming many pieces. We use our mind to connect these forces. We are not separate from these forces. The forces are us. These forces DO us!

Too much mind: All doing, and all function; Too little mind: yes, perhaps Non-doing, but no function.

If you do a posture, or a pathway, you are missing the big picture.

This is an aspiration I want to embody.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tai Chi Chuan - vs. the IT

Tai Chi Chuan – vs. the IT!

As we go through our study in tai chi, we work very hard to find out what IT is: Correct, irrefutably right, perfect.

Then we take that IT and put cement around it so that it can’t NOT be IT. And if we run into a different IT, that other IT is unrecognizable because our IT is sooooo IT that there is no other IT out there.

Feel about right?

What I like to look for is the thing that is so not IT that you have to let go of your IT and do something different. This is where students get irritated. Up comes their IT, how this new thing CAN’T be IT, how this new thing is wrong, unhelpful, and irrelevant to our IT campaign. And that new thing (is it right? Is it wrong?) becomes something to ignore, disregard, refute, dismiss, fight off…

How sad, methinks!

Because sometimes that other IT may help you.

Your IT may in fact be right, correct, irrefutable… and well worth developing.

But I want to get rid of the cement and the mental blockade that comes with this.

It’s good to try  on new clothes once in a while; listen, really listen to music you are not familiar with; read a poem even if you hate poetry. Try on a hat, even if you dislike hats, to see how it feels.

Disable that JUDGEMENT app. That “WARNING! DANGER!” symbol. The dialogue inside that erupts when your IT is being set aside for a moment as you try something else.

The hardest part in learning is the willingness to try something new.

The hardest part in teaching is getting students to put down their barriers to new experience and simply get them to explore.

Here is a fundamental question:  What do you know today, that wish you knew 20, 30 or 40 years ago? And what did it take to discover this - how did this come about? And why did it take so long?

Change is hard. Joining an IT crusade is easy. Somewhere in the middle, nearly impossible!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Tai Chi Chuan and the Key to Happiness

Tai Chi Chuan and the Key to Happiness

We all want happiness. I ran into an interesting statement which I will paraphrase: 

Easy Choices, Hard Life;

Hard Choices, Easy Life.


I have been studying something else besides tai chi and that something else is a language which does not use the English alphabet, Arabic. It has been a challenge to learn new letters, new sounds in some cases, totally new looking words - just about NO correlation to English. This is not my best skill set so to say this is a challenge is an understatement.

And yet my favorite 1.5 hours each week is Arabic class. Small, nice interested group of students, and a wonderful teacher. Some of the classes I just love and they feel easy. Other classes, I sort of dread because they threaten to push into my deficiencies. I struggle.

Yet I leave the class buzzed! It is always fun. The teacher will review and review and break things down more and more if needed. I find the material and the process fascinating. New phrases, new grammar, new rules of pronunciation and so forth. It is much more work than I had anticipated or desired. It is also much more fun.

I have often wanted to quit tai chi but have been pulled back time and time again. Arabic may be yet another skill to add to that list.

Happiness?  It seems to me that both have something in common and that is what makes them so joyful in the end. It has to do with being absorbed by what you are doing. To really give this thing (movement, position, letter, word, grammatical nuance) your full attention. It is simply that. Total focus. The more the better.

I am beginning to think that focus and attention – for whatever reason – is the key to happiness.

Nothing else will do it. Focus is a process; it is not a result or a success story within itself. Just take a look at what you think brings you happiness. Do you not focus on it, attend to it? Would it be the same if you didn’t focus on it? Are those items that come effortlessly more satisfying than those that you need to work on, focus on?

I notice one obstacle to tai chi in general and that is the notion that by just doing it, all will be well, that benefits will come your way. Most of us go on automatic pilot and sort of don’t exist in much of our practice – and it doesn’t improve. It has to mean enough to you that you want as much of your attention to be on it as you can.  It is more than just brushing your teeth or taking a shower.

When I say this, I am not implying maniacal self-critical correction mode. That doesn’t help either. I was prone to this at one point and I realized I could no longer practice where the focus was on fixing fixing fixing. I was one big act of masochism. No, what I am talking about is paying attention. There may be some fixing. But it is also just seeing what is there as you do it.

The more you attend, the better it will feel. But regardless of that, the more you attend, the more you will feel happy. And this applies to everything.  In my language class, I don’t have a choice. If I didn’t pay attention, it would be utterly pointless. I’d quit in a flash.

Hard choices always require great attention and effort. And it helps if these are truly choices!

Even if you are doing something you don’t want to do, I believe that if you do it with resistance, it becomes a chore and not very satisfying. But if you simply put all of your attention on it, the time will be something you enjoy. Attention is a choice you can make.

All the easier when you WANT to attend to the activity you are involved in.

So I hope that tai chi has that kind of interest for you. You don’t even have to be good at it to create some happiness. You just need to show up and pay attention. Want to pay attention.

Find that thing that you want to focus on, even if it isn’t tai chi, and you will have a life of happy moments.

Results are nice, but focus is a thrill!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tai Chi Bit By Bit

Tai Chi Bit By Bit

To continue with my language metaphor, learning tai chi is very much like learning a VERY foreign language (as in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic - where there is no English alphabet). I’m studying Arabic.

We learn letters, then groups of letters that make up a word, then words that combine with other words to form meaning, then grammatical rules so that the combinations can be replicated and imitated in other sentences and so forth.

But you have to start from the beginning. Like a letter. Or a shape.  Like imagine learning the paragraph sentence above in another language.

We learn how a letter combines with another letter and how that sounds, and how a movement progresses into the next part of the movement to make a continuous sequence. Then the sound combinations will have meaning, as the movement sequence will have a martial or energetic functioning.

Then grammar kicks in so that you can manipulate those words consistently.

In tai chi, you incorporate principles to the basic movements and combination of movements in order to have an entire posture. A posture in tai chi is the movement from beginning to end of one small section that has one basic function. It makes its own sentence. Each posture has a name but each posture is made up of several letters and even words. But in order to pronounce the letters together correctly, you need principles that cement the beginning and the end into one functioning statement.

We conceptualize the form as having three sections. I might call these paragraphs which contain multiple moves. How you pronounce your moves, connect your moves, improve your grammar, your pronunciation will impact on the meaning of the paragraph.

Some think that once you “know” the paragraph, you can move on. Well, not quite. As you learn nuance, the meaning in the paragraph will change. And as you learn the infinite variable sentences of push hands, you change the meaning of your tai chi form.

“Fire” vs. “fire”.  One is a noun, one is a verb. In that previous sentence, I follow the rules of capital lettering. And if you say the word “fire”, the context will drive the meaning. And even when you choose a meaning through the context, the feeling of that meaning will have infinite variations.

“Through”. “Threw”. “Through”.

I threw the ball.
I am now through.
I went through the tunnel.

Sound and meaning. Context and emotion. Written expertise. All of these are factors in these sentences just like each posture has a context and a meaning depending on the person doing the form.

Your form may be the moves. Or it may be the connection between the moves, or the fullness of each move, or how the fullness in yang part of the move dissolves into the yin part of the move to create an ebb and flow, not just a straight line. Or it may be an expression of a martial arts move or the expression of a body that knows how to fill up and expand and empty to become light and nimble, it may be the folding and unfolding and how the body makes that happen through relaxation, sinking, non-doing.

Some writers are terse, others elaborate. Some have a light touch, others a thickness that needs effort to read. Some love long intricate sentences, others as brief as poetry.  For some the meaning is IN the words, for others, the meaning is what is between the words or what is not stated.

So too your form.

Of course, the kind of learning I’m talking about is not the only way to learn. We actually absorb our native tongue far before we can break it down and understand its internal workings. Some learn tai chi in exactly this way as well.

There is a childlike absorption process in learning both language and tai chi. At first you are learning even though you don’t know you are learning something. The language takes you. Tai chi takes you. Only later can you pull it apart to see what has taken place, hidden in plain sight, to reveal deeper expression. It takes deep reflection on what has taken place in the past to understand this.

Mastery comes when it simply comes out of you without any effort. We don’t construct HOW to say anything after a while. It just appears as you need it. No gaps in execution.

Arabic is difficult and technical, and like my native language I hope it can just flow someday. Like tai chi, it is extraordinarily elegant. And for me, worth the effort.

To find something, ANYTHING that requires this kind of attention is of great value.